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Posts Tagged ‘Tommy Lee Jones’

Gratifying though it has been to see the great Mr Jason Statham become much more a fixture of major studio movies, with his appearances in the Fast & Furious franchise, the Expendables series, and even a Melissa McCarthy comedy, there has been a definite downside to this – namely that vehicles headlined by Mr Statham himself have become that much thinner on the ground. The fact that the last couple of these didn’t even shown at my multiplex of choice doesn’t help much either – well, at least Netflix loves Jason, even if the Odeon doesn’t.

One victim of Odeon’s Stathamophobia was last year’s Mechanic: Resurrection, which is ostensibly a sequel to 2011’s The Mechanic. To be honest, though, it could really be a sequel to almost any Jason Statham film you care to mention, inasmuch as he is (as usual) playing the Jason Statham Character – which is to say, a tough, taciturn professional whose lethal skills are offset by a strict code of honour.

Rather amusingly, Mechanic: Resurrection‘s director, Dennis Gansel, has opted for the possessive credit (i.e., ‘A film by…’), which is more sensibly reserved for films with a distinctive artistic vision and aspirations to be high art. None of these things is true of a normal Jason Statham movie, and they’re especially not true of this one.

Mr Statham plays Bishop, a retired assassin who specialised in making his handiwork look like an accident. These days he is living the life of Riley in Brazil on his lovely yacht, but, wouldn’t you just know it, his past is about to catch up with him. A young woman turns up and refuses to let Mr Statham’s clever attempts to pretend to be Brazilian fool her. ‘You can’t even get the accent right,’ she observes, which (given Jason Statham’s notoriously variable attempts to sound American) is about as close as the film gets to actual wit. Anyway, she is in the employ of one of Mr Statham’s old acquaintances, Crane (Sam Hazeldine), who has unfinished business with him. Not that it really matters much, but apparently both Bishop and Crane were effectively sold into slavery as children and trained as child soldiers by a gangster. This might make more sense if they didn’t both have London accents, but I digress. Anyway, Crane wants Bishop to carry out three looking-like-an-accident assassinations, or it will go the worse for him.

After a second or so’s consideration, Mr Statham refuses the young lady’s offer in the traditional courteous fashion, by hitting her over the head with a table. Pausing only to beat up all of her bodyguards, he departs (by hurling himself atop a passing hang-glider) and clears off to Thailand and the beach resort of his old friend Mei (Michelle Yeoh, soon to go where no Hong Kong action star has gone before).

Here he meets Gina (Jessica Alba), a young woman who appears to be having trouble with an abusive girlfriend. At Mei’s prompting, Mr Statham intervenes (he’s very ready to sit in judgement on men who are violent to women, given only five minutes earlier he was hitting girls with tables), and the man with a legendary skill when it comes to premeditatedly killing folk and making it look accidental, accidentally kills the dude but makes it look rather like a murder. Hey, everyone has a bad day once in a while, I guess.

It turns out that Gina is also in the employ of Crane, the plan being that she will get it on with him and then allow herself to be kidnapped, thus giving Crane leverage over our man. She is still basically a good sort, though, as she is ex-US Army and also runs an orphanage in Cambodia. Not entirely surprisingly, the two of them get it on anyway, at which point Crane’s goons indeed turn up and kidnap her. Slow off the mark, there, Mr S.

Well, Mr Statham has to go off and do the three assassinations after all, but luckily they are horrible people so his conscience stays fairly clear. I suppose you could call these sequences little vignettes – Bishop has to get himself in and out of a maximum security Thai prison, which involves exploding chewing gum and a fake facial tattoo (done in biro from the look of things), and then does his human fly impression up the side of an Australian skyscraper to flush a human trafficker out of the bottom of his own swimming pool. Then it’s off to Bulgaria for his date with his final target, an American arms dealer (Tommy Lee Jones).

The presence of a relatively substantial performer like Jones, along with that of a high-profile leading lady like Jessica Alba, might lead you to conclude that this is a more serious and credible Jason Statham movie. You would be entirely wrong, I am afraid, for this is a Jason Statham movie in the classic vein, even – if I may be so bold – an especially preposterous one. (In case you were wondering, Tommy Lee Jones basically contributes an extended cameo, while Jessica Alba is, perhaps not for the first time in her career, essentially just ornamental flesh.)

The cinematography is quite nice, I suppose, and the various scenes of Jason Statham doing intricate, determined things in the course of his assassinations are well managed. This is one of those films where Mr Statham spends most of his time scowling intensely, with perhaps a touch of wistfulness now and then – he’s perfectly good at this, and also in the numerous action sequences. For some reason he spends quite a lot of the film in a wetsuit this time, but this is far from the oddest thing about it.

The problems mainly lie with the script, which is hackneyed, has nothing new to offer, and oscillates between deep predictability and moments of the utterly absurd – at one point the villains’ yacht leaves Sydney harbour, and then seemingly only a few hours later is cruising in the Black Sea. Now, I do like a touch of the outlandish and crazy in my Jason Statham movies – it’s the contrast between Statham’s completely deadpan approach to the material and its frequent barking silliness which gives them their distinctive tone – but somehow here it all feels just a bit perfunctory, not even remotely grounded in reality.

The opening section of the film is fairly engaging, but once Mr Statham sets off about his various assassinations, it rapidly becomes – dare I say it – completely mechanical, with very little in the way of characterisation or intentional humour. By the time the final act arrived, with a succession of uninspired shoot-ups and obvious plot twists, I actually found it a genuine struggle to stay focused on the movie and not start thinking about something else. Long-term readers will know that this is something that is very rarely the case with a Statham movie.

I really don’t know. I am, obviously, a fan of Jason Statham, and have sat and watched nearly all his movies and mostly enjoyed them – and while this one does have a few bits and pieces in it to divert the attention and reward the faithful, at the same time it too often feels formulaic and poorly thought through. I really like Jason Statham because he is usually a front man whose presence is the indicator of a Good Bad Movie. Mechanic: Resurrection, unfortunately, is just a Bad Movie.

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So, DC are releasing an antihero-themed wannabe-blockbuster and there’s a new Bourne sequel with Matt Damon in the cinema too: cripes, it’s like I’m back in August 2004 all over again. (I wonder if it’s possible to leave myself a note not to bother going to see Transformers? Somehow I doubt it.) I suppose this is a timely reminder that some things never really change.

bourne5

I suppose the key thing this time around is that Jason Bourne is the first film about that character in nine years, Damon, director Paul Greengrass, and Bourne himself all having excused themselves from participating in Tony Gilroy’s rather disappointing crack at a Bourne-free Bourne movie, 2012’s The Bourne Legacy. As I always seem to be saying, it took me a while to warm up to this series, and my review of the original 2002 movie is virtually the textbook case of my getting it very wrong indeed, but the prospect of a new outing from this team was always going to be a very enticing one.

Many years have passed since Bourne’s disappearance (the film appears to be set in 2015, but there is a degree of elastic movie time going on here – Bourne’s birth year is given as 1978, which is somewhat flattering to the 45-year-old Matt Damon, but it also seems to suggest that Bourne was going around topping folk in his early twenties, which somehow feels rather implausible) and a new generation of iffy projects is being cultivated by the top brass at the CIA. Determined to stop this, the CIA computers are hacked by Bourne’s old associate/handler Nicky (Julia Stiles) who downloads key files on his recruitment. The two of them hook up in riot-torn Athens, with the stolen files perhaps offering Bourne a way to reconnect with the world and find a reason for living beyond simply beating people up. But the CIA is determined to protect its secrets and mobilises its full array of resources against them…

Well, if you liked the previous Damon/Greengrass Bourne films you’re probably going to like this one, too. There is a sense in which it perhaps feels a bit formulaic in terms of the way the plot develops, but not to the point where it seriously impairs the film as a piece of serious entertainment. After the resounding phrrppp of the Jeremy Renner movie, it’s actually quite reassuring and cosy to find a film which hits so many of the familiar series beats: beady-eyed CIA analysts poised over computers, ‘Bring the Asset on-line,’ internet cafes, Matt Damon stalking purposefully out of airports and railway stations, ‘Eyes on target’, some wistful cor anglais during the character beats, a spectacularly destructive final chase sequence, Bourne displaying the kind of ability to soak up punishment normally only associated with Captain Scarlet or possibly Popeye the Sailor, Extreme Ways playing over the closing credits and so on. It doesn’t even matter that much that most of the characters are basically stock figures by this point – there is the grizzled CIA veteran (Tommy Lee Jones this time), the ambitious young operator (Alicia Vikander this time), and the fearsomely professional rival assassin whom Bourne is clearly going to have to engage in a deadly contest of skills at some point (Vincent Cassel this time).

I would happily turn up to any film featuring all these things, but the thing about the Bourne films was that they always had a bit more about them than the average action thriller, and the question is whether the new film has any reason to exist other than to profitably rehash elements of a well-regarded film franchise. Well, the jury is still thinking about that one, I suspect, for the plot of the film feels ever so slightly slapped together: the first two thirds are primarily about Bourne’s own past and his father’s hitherto-unsuspected role in the creation of the Treadstone Project, which feels more or less natural and justified – but for the final act and the climax they segue into an essentially unconnected plotline about internet privacy and the CIA infiltrating social network providers. This is the kind of hot-button topic that Paul Greengrass is clearly strongly drawn to, but it is a bit of a wrench given what precedes it, to say nothing of the fact that this kind of malevolent ubiquitous cyber-surveillance was the underwhelming Maguffin at the heart of SPECTRE, too.

I mean, this is still a superbly accomplished thriller, and miles better than the Renner movie, even if the major set pieces aren’t quite as stupendous as the ones in the previous films. The thing is that it doesn’t feel like it has the heart and soul of those films – it’s kind of searching for a reason to exist, which I suppose is Bourne’s own quest, but even so. As I said, it all feels just a little bit like a remix of the Bourne series’ greatest hits, something rather formulaic. Luckily, it’s a brilliant formula, and the result is a very satisfying piece of entertainment. The problem is that it’s inevitably going to draw comparisons with two of the very best thrillers of the last 15 years, and it simply isn’t quite up to the same standard. It says something about the older movies when the fact that this one is only a very good thriller qualifies as a disappointment.

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‘I can’t account for how at any given moment I feel the need to explore one life as opposed to another, but I do know that I can only do this work if I feel almost as if there is no choice; that a subject coincides inexplicably with a very personal need and a very specific moment in time.’   Daniel Day-Lewis

Well, I don’t know about you, folks, but to me that sounds less like a working method than a description of some sort of disorder, but hey, it clearly works for Mr Picky as he won his third leading-role Oscar last week. Come on, Marvel, get him on board for the Avengers sequel or whatever! I’d like to see him try method-acting Thanos or the Abomination.

Lincoln

Anyway, as a conscientous sort of chap who cares about his readers I thought it behooved me to go along and actually have a look at Day-Lewis’ turn in Lincoln, and as a purveyor of cheap jokes I worried that a lengthy biopic about the American Civil War and human rights might be a bit short on laughs so I took my trusty Comparison Wrangler with me (apparently he has some sort of Illinois heritage and, as a result, a personal connection to Lincoln – I believe that, in his lawyering days, the 16th President failed to get one of his ancestors off a parking ticket, or something).

Following the movie:

‘Okay, it’s time for the question. What would you compare that film to?’

An unusually lengthy pause. Then: ‘Forrest Gump meets Dirty Harry.’

I must confess to being more startled than usual by this latest gem. ‘Explain,’ I eventually managed to request.

‘Well, he was always telling people little stories – he had a story for every occasion – like Tom Hanks, in Forrest Gump.’

‘And Dirty Harry?’

‘He kept squinting all the time. Oh, and he was looking for justice, too.’

Believe it or not, I do go to the cinema with this guy out of choice. I can’t honestly endorse his appraisal of Spielberg’s film, though. This is one part historical portrait to two parts political drama, notably lighter on martial arts vampire fighting than last year’s somewhat similar Lincoln bio-pic.

The bulk of the film occurs in the space of a few weeks early in 1865. Lincoln has just been re-elected as US President, which is good, but the Civil War is in its fourth year, which is bad. That said, the Confederacy is virtually exhausted, which again is good, but Lincoln has not yet managed to get the US Constitution amended to outlaw slavery, which is also bad. For various political reasons it is absolutely vital that the amendment be passed by the House of Representatives before peace breaks out, but in order to do this Lincoln needs to manufacture a two-thirds majority which he simply does not possess.

Most of the film depicts Lincoln’s various endeavours to cobble together the majority required, which results in a number of plotlines going off in various directions – a fervent abolitionist played by Tommy Lee Jones has to be persuaded to moderate his position in order not to frighten the metaphorical horses, a dodgy political operator played by James Spader is retained to get votes from Lincoln’s Democratic opponents by offering sinecures, peace overtures from the South have to be carefully finessed, and so on. As I’ve said before, I’m not a great expert on American history, and my knowledge of their political system mainly derives from early seasons of The West Wing, but I found this all to be fascinating, challenging stuff, and I did come away wanting to learn more about the history of this period.

Less successful, I thought, was material concerning Lincoln’s relationships with his various family members – Mrs Lincoln is played by Sally Field, who to be perfectly truthful I like less than Mary Elizabeth Winstead from the other movie, and Lincoln’s eldest son is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt – cue the inevitable whisper of ‘Hey, it’s Batman!’ from the seat next to mine. If this stuff is here to try to humanise an iconic figure, or possibly portray him as a hero with feet of clay, then it doesn’t quite work, possibly because Spielberg’s heart isn’t quite in it. The film isn’t quite a hagiography of its subject, but it does have an aura of reverentiality to it, and while it’s by no means humourless, it is definitely steeped in gravitas.

Daniel Day-Lewis is operating on full power as Lincoln himself, but – as usual – I found the results to be oddly mannered and ostentatious. His performances are always arresting and remarkable, but for me he never disappears into the character he’s playing: instead he straps the accoutrements of their personality on like some ornate suit of baroque armour. I found Tommy Lee Jones’ performance, which isn’t nearly so technically refined, far easier to relate to.

But then this is clearly intended as a serious film on an important topic. Spielberg’s strike rate with this sort of thing is rather variable – and personally I prefer his films when they involve people being eaten by special effects – but this is certainly towards the top end of this section of his oeuvre, engaging, illuminating, crisply scripted, uniformly strongly played, and unflashily-directed. ‘Enjoyed’ is probably the wrong word for my reaction to Lincoln, but I certainly appreciated the skill that had gone into making it.

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Topping up my rental list a while back, I decided to add the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men – not because I’m a particular fan of the Coens, though I’ve never found one of their movies less than diverting, but because this one seemed to have a bit of a reputation about it. (Due to my international jetsetting lifestyle, I missed it on its initial release and indeed for quite a long time kept getting it mixed up with There Will Be Blood, which came out at about the same time.) It also appears to be the film that launched Javier Bardem’s career in Anglophone cinema – and with my ticket for Skyfall already bought, he’s an actor currently on my radar.

The thing with the Coens is that you never know quite what you’re going to get – they’ve done comedies, thrillers, and westerns of all stripes and tones, although a certain offness of beat is usually to be expected. This movie, however, is written and played rather straighter than most of their output, presumably due to its greater fidelity to Cormac McCarthy’s source novel (when asked about the process of adaptation, the Coens revealed that one of them held the book open while the other typed the contents into the script).

Josh Brolin plays Llewellyn Moss, a laconic retired welder living in the southern USA in 1980. By chance he stumbles upon the aftermath of an unsuccessful drug deal: one of the distinguishing features of the drug business is that failed deals tend to involve more spent ammunition and corpses than other areas of industry. Moss discovers a bag with $2 million in it and, perhaps understandably, decides he would quite like to keep it.

However, the owner of the money would also quite like it back and to this end dispatches laconic psychopathic weirdo Anton Chigurh (Bardem, in a deeply unflattering hairstyle somewhat reminiscent of Sonny Bono) to get it back. Chigurh’s chosen implements include a pneumatic bolt-gun and a shotgun with a silencer on it (no, I didn’t know you could do that either); as someone observes, he is not well blessed with a sense of humour, and the sort of hitch-hiker who gives the pursuit a bad name.

Aware of what’s going on is mild-mannered and laconic sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) – but Moss is intent on handling matters himself, placing himself in severe peril as Chigurh, another laconic bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson) and some peeved Mexican drug-dealers close in on him…

On one level this is unrepentantly a genre movie, though it’s a little unclear quite what the genre in question is. The Coens cheerfully mash together tropes of both the classic western and the contemporary crime thriller, and the results are virtually seamless. The result is a tough, one might almost say macho movie, bloodily violent in places, and mostly populated by hard, laconic men, used to lives of violence. (That said, Kelly Macdonald is rather good – and, to my eyes, almost unrecognisable – as Moss’ wife.) This is a great-looking film with its own rather spartan style: there are long stretches with virtually no dialogue, and the only music in it is diegetic (hey, look at it this way: I’ve given you the opportunity to either feel a sense of smug kinship or learn a new word).

For the majority of its running time this is a taut, engrossing movie, well-directed, with very strong performances from everyone involved. And then… well, I would hate to spoil the ending, even though I found it more baffling than satisfying. There’s – well, it’s not quite a plot twist, but it’s an event that would cause most writing coaches to faint with horror if you were to suggest it. And following this, the remainder of the film becomes much less obviously a thriller or a western, but more a thoughtful and rather oblique meditation on… I’m really not sure. Fate. Responsibility. The nature of justice. The thriller plotline seems to get forgotten about, and so, for that matter, does a conventional ending.

I have to say I was disappointed by the way this film wrapped up, largely because I’d been so impressed with it in its earlier stages: the shift in tone and focus is just a bit too sudden and jarring. I suppose by making what looks like a genre movie you’re putting yourself in thrall to genre conventions, and having done so it’s very difficult to extricate yourself with a great deal of elegance, or indeed in a satisfying way.

Then again, it may be that it’s this very peculiar denouement which is responsible for the tremendous critical acclaim No Country For Old Men received: certainly it’s one of the most garlanded movies of recent years. Certainly, it’s beautifully written, filmed, directed and performed – Bardem is brilliant as a genuinely creepy psycho, and I don’t recall Harrelson ever being better, either – and if I was watching it for the first time on TV and the set blew up around the 90 minute mark I would be incensed, certain I was missing the end of a classic movie. As it is, I don’t know; maybe I will have to watch it again and try to assimilate that final half hour or so properly. I hesitate to call this movie deeply flawed, because that ending is obviously intended to mean something: I just have no idea what it is.

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Off to the coffeeshop once again, and I was moved to irritation and quite possibly actual despair by a sign revealing that the the automatic ticket dispensing machine was ‘TEMPORALLY OUT OF ORDER’. Presumably this means one of two things: a rupture in the time continuum had encased the workings in an impenetrable stasis field, or the band of happy wibblers who serve coffee and cookies and tea (and occasionally, when they can fit it in, show the odd film) don’t know the difference between the words ‘temporally’ and ‘temporarily’. Obviously this is a sign of plummetting standards in something-or-other, but, less obviously, my reaction was a sign that one of my gloomy moods might be inbound, something which warrants monitoring.

In which case, it was just sheer bad luck that the first three trailers playing were for Fast Girls, Rock of Ages, and Top Cat – the Movie. Individually any of these would have been depressing, but together they constituted a veritable double-tap to the soul. So it may have been the case that I was not in the prime mood to be receptive to the jolly SF-inflected japery of Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black 3. Still going to write about it though – we haven’t done an Oh God Not Another One for a bit.

Ahem. Agents J (showbiz patriarch Will Smith in his first big movie for quite a bit) and K (Tommy Lee Jones, who at least did Captain America last year) are still doing their Men in Black schtick in New York, under new boss Agent O (Emma Thompson) – possibly Rip Torn didn’t want to come back, I don’t know. However, a nasty alien (Jemaine Clement) busts out of a prison on the moon with the aid of Nicole Scherzinger and heads for the Big Apple intent on taking revenge on old enemy K. (And if you think the film’s going to give you some kind of explanation for Scherzinger’s involvement, you’ve got another think coming!)

The bad guy gets his hand on a time machine and pops back to 1969 to kill K before he can catch him in the first place – don’t let the ins and outs of this concern you overmuch – conveniently leaving the only other time machine in the present day so J can follow him back. In the new timeline where K has been dead for decades, Earth is in terrible peril, and J has to save his partner for the planet to survive – and the best person to help our temporally-displaced (or, if you work for Odeon, temporarily-displaced) hero is a younger version of K (Josh Brolin)…

I get the strong impression that the over-riding motivation in making this film, on the parts of Smith and Sonnenfeld at least, was not ‘Hey, haven’t we come up with a great, strong, fun, original idea that demands that we revive this particular franchise!’ so much as ‘Hey, neither of us have had a proper mainstream hit in a long time -‘ Sonnenfeld’s last movie was Space Chimps in 2008, Smith’s last leading role in the bizarre transplant-a-thon Seven Pounds in 2009 ‘- let’s get together and milk the cash cow one more time.’ Certainly I had no sense of people crying out for another Men in Black movie after Men in Black 2.

But then again I wasn’t exactly crying out for a sequel after the original film. I seem to have some sort of peculiar blind spot or – and I know this sounds like the sort of thing I’d make up just to facilitate cheap gags – selective amnesia where the Men in Black series is concerned. When I’m actually watching these movies, I find them to be more than passably fun, with a lot to enjoy. Will Smith is reliably adept at the kind of wisecracking leading man role he plays here, the central concept is a strong one, the films are always visually interesting and inventive, there are always a few genuinely funny gags, and Danny Elfman’s score adds irresistibly to the impression you’re watching something smart and stylish.

But are you, though? Once I’ve come out of seeing one of these films it nearly always fades from my memory in a remarkably brief period of time. To be blunt, I think the great achievement of these films is in putting a smart and stylish gloss on what’s really quite broad and knockabout entertainment. In this one, the trip back to 1969 permits some quite good jokes about the art scene of the period, but the films really shies away from any satire which is genuinely penetrating. There’s one scene in which Smith gets stopped and searched for driving an expensive car, which at least acknowledges an element of societal tension, but to put this in context there’s also some really dodgy stuff earlier on about Chinese restaurants.

The strengths of the series are all there, I suppose, and Brolin’s impression of Jones is a lot of fun. More fun, it must be said, than Jones’ impression of himself – he gives off an aura of being in the movie against his will, perhaps with guns trained on him from behind the cameras. His appearance is, frankly, as minimal as they can get away with, and one has to ponder if his claim that doing these movies is ‘a hell of a lot of fun’ is really sincere.

I feel I should also point out that the plot of this film borders on the incoherent, as is nearly always the case when a big movie talks about going back in time and meddling with events which have already happened. Can someone do a movie where this sort of thing is handled intelligently and in a way which doesn’t contradict itself, please? In the end things are resolved with the help of a plot-device character played (rather annoyingly, it must be said) by Michael Stuhlbarg, and a plan which may seem vaguely familiar to anyone who saw the Doctor getting rid of the Silence on TV around the time this film was being made.

But, all this said, the film passed the time pleasantly enough, even if I was never under the impression this was anything other than nicely-packaged, eminently-disposable entertainment with – it would seem – no real ambitions to be anything else. I will be really surprised if this film makes as big an impression as either of its predecessors, given the state of modern cinema. On past form, Men in Black 4 is not due until 2032, so at least they have a while to come up with an idea which does the MIB concept justice.

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History is like spicy food: you always notice when it starts repeating on you. One of the very last films I saw in the summer of 2001 before starting to write regularly on the topic was Jurassic Park III, directed by Joe Johnston. Now I went to see that with rock-bottom expectations – it was a one-trick series, and the first sequel had seemed extremely tired and mechanical. To be perfectly honest, I only went to watch the tyrannosaurus fight the spinosaurus (yes, that’s how nerdy I can be).

And yet, I really enjoyed it, and it even made it into the Lassie Awards for 2001 as Pleasant Surprise of the Year: Johnstone’s focus on characters, atmosphere, and humour really made the film work much better than it had any right to on paper. As I mentioned, history appears to be repeating itself as I could say practically the same thing about his new movie, Captain America: The First Avenger (possibly trading only as The First Avenger, depending on which country you live in and their geopolitical affiliations).

You might well consider this movie a candidate for our Oh God, Not Another One department as it is the third Marvel super hero movie of the year (to say nothing of those derived from the comics of other companies). I have to confess I had grave reservations about the project, simply because Captain America is a fiercely dull character. It seems to me that his having to serve as the patriotic embodiment of their nation means that writers simply can’t give Cap any kind of personality worth mentioning. That’s not to say that interesting stories haven’t occasionally been told using the character, but they haven’t really been about him.

Captain America is, as you’d expect, a tremendously polished and technically sophisticated movie, but its greatest achievement is in making the title character someone you can actually believe in and even care about (a bit, at least). Chris Evans (note to British readers: no, not him – the other one) plays Steve Rogers, a young man desperate to do his bit for the USA at the height of the Second World War. Alas, he is a scrawny little shorthouse with a long list of medical problems and the army will not take him.

Luckily he is offered the chance to serve by a passing boffin (Stanley Tucci), who shoots him full of – er – blue stuff and then attaches him to the local power grid. As luck, and the magic of dubious 1940s superhero origins, would have it, this transforms Steve into a physically perfect adonis! The army brass breathe a sigh of relief (as do the special effects department, as they no longer have to keep digitally transforming Evans into a wimp). But tragedy strikes as a passing Nazi agent guns down Tucci’s character, who rather thoughtlessly has neglected to write down the recipe for the blue stuff anywhere. It seems that Steve will be unique as far as American super-soldiers go…

…but not quite unique worldwide. It turns out that a previous test subject of Tucci’s is still on the scene. He is the Red Skull (played, as only he can, by Hugo Weaving) and he appears to be in a permanent strop (possibly having no nose or hair and serious complexion issues will do this to a fellow). The Skull has parted company with the Nazis as they are just too moderate and embarked upon his own plan for global conquest. To this end he has got his hands on an ancient occult relic (to be fair, the movie acknowledges what a cliche this has become) and is all set to unleash his nefarious schemes…

Whatever success Captain America achieves – and to my mind it is a considerable amount – all derives from the opening section of the film, which takes its time to establish the characters, the plot, and the tone with great care. This makes for a slightly slow start, but still an involving and enjoyable one. The cast is unusually strong throughout – apart from the people I’ve mentioned, Tommy Lee Jones, Toby Jones, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper and Neal McDonough all make an impression – and the script neatly plays with various concepts of Captain America as a character. Originally created as a morale-boosting wartime icon, he literally becomes that here for a while, before transforming into a much grittier figure clearly based on the Ultimates version created by Mark Millar (Millar is thanked in the credits). For its first half, the movie is always just a little bit wittier, smarter, darker, more knowing, and more affecting than you really expect it to be, and constantly rewarding as a result. (I was a little baffled by Stan Lee’s cameo, obligatory though it is: this isn’t a character he originated!)

That said, the rest of the film does see it settle down to become not much more than an effects-intensive action picture: a fairly successful one, but not much more than that. And the conclusion is… well, odd. You can almost sense the writers scratching their heads about which point they should end the story at, and I’m not sure they made the right decision, to be perfectly honest. I’m not saying it’s a total failure, but the very last beat of the movie before the closing credits fell rather flat for me.

All of this is, of course, down to Captain America‘s status as the latest Marvel Studios picture and the last one before the release of The Avengers next summer. Despite its period setting, this film has quite a few little nods to others in the series – Dominic Cooper is playing Tony Stark’s dad, which may explain why Robert Downey Jr had a version of Cap’s shield in his lab in the last Iron Man, while anyone who saw Thor will have a good idea of where the central plot Maguffin originated from – and elsewhere. (I particularly enjoyed the fleeting appearance of the original Human Torch, which may well be a reference to Chris Evans’ own history playing a different version of that character.) That said, only at the very end did I get a sense of pieces being carefully shuffled around, and this film is quite capable of standing on its own merits.

For me, the Marvel Studios films, while uniformly slick and entertaining, haven’t quite hit the same heights as some of the Marvel movies made by different companies (and here I’m thinking mainly of the X-Men and Spider-Man films). I’d hesitate to say Captain America was the best one yet, but for me it was certainly more satisfying than Iron Man 2 or The Incredible Hulk, and quite possibly edged it past Thor as well. It’s also one of the most satisfying popcorn movies I’ve seen this year: full of good-natured fun and interesting characters, and with a near-total absence of weary jingoism and moralising, this may not be the greatest superhero movie ever, but it’s possibly one of the best interpretations of Captain America in any medium. Highly enjoyable.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published August 8th 2002: 

You know, when I was a lad, the only people who talked about the Men in Black phenomenon were Forteans, ufologists and Mulderalikes, because back then they were an urban legend: supposedly, emissaries of alien forces intent on covering up otherworldly activities on Earth. People investigated the subject in a very serious minded way. Jung was mentioned.

These days, of course, nobody believes a word of it (to coin a phrase). Mention Men in Black and people will start quoting Tommy Lee Jones if you’re lucky, or engage in misguided attempts at rapping if you’re not, such was the penetration into the zeitgeist of the 1997 movie of the same name. In fact, if I was of a conspiratorial bent I might ponder the way the ‘real’ MIB mystery has been so effectively obscured, and those who would investigate it seriously rendered a laughing-stock. But I’m not, so I don’t. Much…

Anyway, considering the megabucks raked in by the first outing there should be no surprise whatsoever in the fact that nearly everyone involved has returned for another outing: Men in Black 2, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Five years have passed and Agent J (Will Smith) is now the one saddled with a succession of useless partners and a vague yearning for a normal life. This changes when the evil (not to mention amply-upholstered) Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle) arrives on Earth looking for the mythical ‘Light of Zarthos’, which was involved in an old case back in the 70s. The only man who knows where the Light is, inevitably, J’s old mentor K (Tommy Lee Jones), who’s happily living as a post office worker with no recollection that he’s the most feared human in the cosmos…

Well, if you like sequels, have no fear, because this is one of the sequeliest sequels in living memory. Virtually everybody from number one comes back this time, with the obvious exception of Vincent D’Onofrio and the lamentable exception of Linda Fiorentino. The worm guys come back, Frank the talking dog comes back, the regenerating-head guy (Tony Shalhoub) comes back… Suffice to say that if you liked something in the first film, it’s here for you to enjoy again. The continuity is excellent, too, by the way.

There is new stuff – sort of. Serleena is a slightly better organised and more articulate villain, although her duocephalous sidekick(s) Charlie and Scrad (Johnny Knoxville) are a one-joke character(s). That’s about it, though, but what the film lacks in originality and new ideas it makes up for in the way it successfully puts novel spins on old gags. This is being marketed as a comedy (although it works equally well as a dumb sci-fi romp) and it manages to be genuinely amusing nearly all the way through. Smith and Jones spark effectively off each other, there are some very droll pieces of broad satire, Rip Torn weighs in with the usual priceless comic support, and when all else fails there are off-colour sight gags, people making silly noises, and singing dogs to be wheeled on: yes, there’s no length the script won’t go to in pursuit of a laugh.

Our late founder, [Douglas Adams], once commented of the original Men in Black that he found some of the jokes suspiciously familiar, and I suspect that this feeling would not have been assuaged by the latest instalment: there’s a joke near the start involving an invading alien spacecraft and a small dog that could have been ripped whole from any version of the Guide you care to mention (and, oddly enough, it didn’t get a very big laugh at the screening I attended). But this really isn’t a problem with the film, although it does have a few. Like the first one, it doesn’t quite get the balance right between being smart and being emotionally engaging. It kicks off with a wodge of told-not-shown exposition that probably isn’t strictly necessary. There’s a plot point involving K’s wiped memories that isn’t gone into quite deeply enough. And Knoxville’s character seems to disappear out of the film like a boojum, with no explanation given (perhaps I’ve been neuralised), although I doubt you’ll miss him much, I mean, it’s not like you’re being deprived of one of the great actors of our time…

There’s always a faint whiff of the mechanical about Men in Black 2. It provides everything you’d expect from a blockbuster sequel, which you can take as praise or criticism – but please, not at the same time. It’s slick, it’s polished, it’s frequently very funny indeed. If you thought the first one was a diverting amusement, you’ll find this one a diverting amusement too.

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